MIAMI - He was exhausted and writhing with pain because of his left leg. LeBron James was unable to run and had to be carried to the bench by teammate Juwan Howard and a Miami trainer to the stunned silence of the crowd at AmericanAirlines Arena.
In what is turning into a special season in Miami, James’s teammates, including the much-maligned Mario Chalmers, delivered with their three-time MVP unavailable. With James getting his right leg massaged at the end of the bench, the Heat used a Chalmers layup and some free throws to seal a 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Miami leads the series, 3-1. James can win his first NBA title in Game 5 on Thursday.
“We talked about it before the game, that you had to play with an intensity that you had nothing left by the end of the game, and he did,’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He was just playing at an incredible pace and intensity level. It was warm in the building, and he just had some cramps there at the end.’’
James pulled up lame after landing hard on a missed layup attempt with 4:05 left in the game. A minute after being being carried to the bench, he returned and drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 97-94 lead.
“I’m sore but we’ll see how I feel tomorrow,’’ said James. “I want to be out there to help my team but like I said, it’s a team game.’’
Dwyane Wade followed with a running layup. The Thunder had one last gasp as Russell Westbrook scored his 41st point on a runner, but desperately needing a defensive stop, Oklahoma City allowed Chalmers to maneuver to the basket for an off-balance layup to restore the 5-pont Miami lead with 44.6 seconds left.
Chalmers finished with 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting and offset a brilliant night by Westbrook, who led all scorers with 43 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter. The issue for Oklahoma City was poor decision-making by their secondary players. Thabo Sefolosha, with the Thunder down 3 with 1:05 left, launched a 3-pointer from the baseline that hit the side of the backboard.
James Harden, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year, was off for the third time in four games, finishing with 8 points on 2-for-10 shooting with four turnovers. Harden is 6-for-26 shooting in Games 1, 3, and 4.
What’s more, Durant and Westbrook are shooting a combined 51.1 percent in the series and have scored 237 points. The remaining Thunder players are shooting 40.7 percent and have 147 points.
“Well, we’re going to keep fighting, frustrating losing like that,’’ said Durant, who combined with Westbrook for 41 of the Thunder’s 49 second-half points. “That’s how we’ve been since I been here. We’ve got to keep believing and that’s what I am going to keep doing. That’s the message I am going to feed to the guys. Me and Russell are going to tell them to keep believing and the next game is a must win.’’
The Thunder couldn’t solve James in the post, and Miami went to the three-time league MVP at will in the third quarter as it took its first lead and threatened to pull away. The Heat’s first lead came on a short jumper by Wade, which made it 50-49, and they began scoring with ease the remainder of the quarter. After the sides traded baskets, the Heat came back with a 7-0 run, including a 3-pointer by Chalmers after a feed from James in the post.
Down, 66-60, the Thunder were in danger of letting the game slip away, but Westbrook countered with a jumper and singlehandedly fought off Miami’s attempts to pull away. James scored 6 consecutive points, 4 on free throws, as Miami led, 77-70, in the final two minutes of the period.
Westbrook scored on an acrobatic layup with three seconds left in the period and Durant followed with a free throw to keep it close at 79-75.
James and Wade each had 20 points, but more impressively, James collected 12 assists through three quarters. The Thunder had 13 as a team. Meanwhile, Harden was unable to contain James and he missed several key shots as the Thunder tried to rally.
Shane Battier provided Miami some late first-quarter momentum with a 3-pointer, his 12th of the series, and the Heat scored the first 13 points of the second quarter to close to within 33-32 at the 8:30 mark. Norris Cole and James Jones contributed 3-pointers as the Thunder’s 17-point edge vanished.
Oklahoma City did not score until the 8:19 mark, on a Westbrook layup, and the rest of the quarter was a tussle with Westbrook carrying the Thunder. He was 4-for-7 shooting in the second quarter and City teammates were 2 of 13, including Durant, who scored just 4 points in the period.